Obama Urges Lawmakers to Resolve Budget Differences, Rebuffs Short-Term Deal
By Paul Kane, Perry Bacon Jr. and William Branigin, Tuesday, April 5, 4:52 PM
President Obama urged Republican and Democratic congressional leaders Tuesday to resolve their remaining differences over a budget deal that would avert a government shutdown and said he would spend the coming days meeting with them if necessary to end the impasse. He all but ruled out another short-term spending bill, as proposed by Republicans.
Two hours after a White House meeting with top congressional leaders in which little progress was made, Obama made a rare appearance in the White House press briefing room to forcefully urge Republicans to find common ground with the White House and congressional Democrats.
He warned that a government shutdown would cause severe disruption, which he said was “the last thing we need” at a time when the economy is starting to grow.
Obama’s appearance was a marked departure from his previous hands-off approach to the negotiations and illustrated a growing worry in his administration that the two sides might not reach a deal by Friday, when current funding for the government ends.
Noting that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) were scheduled to meet on Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon, Obama said, “If they can’t sort it out, I want them back here tomorrow.”
At the same time, Obama gave little ground on the issues dividing the parties. He argued that the White House has agreed to the level of cuts Boehner originally proposed last year and urged Republicans to accept the deal.
“We have more than met the Republicans halfway at this point,” Obama said at the end of a 20-minute news conference.
On Capitol Hill, Reid told reporters: “It’s really time to get the job done. The Republicans need to stop clinging to a bill that has already been defeated here in the Senate.” He called the House-passed budget bill “a non-starter” and “ideologically-driven” and said Republicans are “having trouble divorcing themselves” from it.
“I’m going to do everything I can,” Reid said. “I hope the Republicans do what the country needs, not what they believe the tea party wants.”
He added that he is “not very optimistic,” saying that “the tea party is driving what goes on . . . and we cannot do what they want done.”
Boehner told reporters after the White House meeting: “We’re going to continue to fight for the largest cuts possible.” He vowed that he would not agree to a “bad deal” with Democrats.
In his unannounced appearance, however, Obama said that “we are now closer than we have ever been to getting an agreement” on the fiscal 2011 budget. He said his administration has agreed to $73 billion in cuts as originally proposed by Boehner and Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Now, he said, “the only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown.”
“We have now agreed to $73 billion worth of cuts,” Obama said. “What they [Republicans] are now saying is, well, we’re not sure that every single one of the cuts that you’ve made are ones that we agree to.”
Despite Obama’s comments, it was not clear how he could affect the negotiations. White House officials would not say whether the president would cancel a scheduled trip to the Philadelphia area and New York City on Wednesday.
In response to questions, Obama said that if an agreement is reached in the next day or two, he would be willing to accept a “clean extension” of the existing budget for two or three days in order to complete the legislative package. But he said the two sides have already resorted to short-term spending extensions twice, which he said “is not a way to run a government.”
“I can’t have our agencies making plans based on two-week budgets,” Obama said. “We are now at the point where there is no excuse to extend this further.” A two- or three-day extension to complete a deal is a possibility, he said. “But what we are not going to do is once again put off something that should have gotten done several months ago.”
If Boehner and Reid are not able to quickly bridge their differences, Obama said, “We are prepared to meet for as long as possible to get this resolved.”
The White House meeting came as federal officials began formal preparations for a government shutdown by a Friday deadline. Obama’s talks with congressional leaders represented a late effort to reach a deal over tens of billions of dollars in spending cuts that would avert the federal work stoppage.
Congressional leaders left the White House around noon after the meeting, which lasted just over an hour. Administration officials did not immediately comment, but Boehner’s office said the two sides had not yet come to terms on the dollar value of total spending cuts.
After the meeting, Boehner’s office suggested that Democrats were trying to put him “in a box” on spending levels. “As he has said for the past week, the speaker reminded those present that there has never been an agreement on $33 billion as an acceptable level of spending cuts, and that $33 billion in cuts is not enough, particularly when it is achieved in large part through budget gimmicks,” Boehner’s office said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), meanwhile, told reporters that the prospects for reaching a funding deal for the rest of the year were so far off that it was not very likely this week. He said after conferring with Boehner that the best chance of averting a work stoppage is approving the GOP’s offer of a one-week extension of government funding, through April 15, in exchange for $12 billion in spending cuts and full funding of the Pentagon for the remainder of the year.
“I’m saying I don’t think that’s even a likelihood and that there would be some need for a bridge to get there, but the bottom line is, we don’t have a deal,” Cantor said, dismissing the idea that a broad deal could be reached by Friday.
Earlier, Democrats provided conflicting reports on whether Obama would accept the Republican extension.
The No. 2 House Democrat said Tuesday that members of his party would oppose the stopgap measure unveiled by House Republicans Monday night.
“I will oppose this bill,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters. “I hope other Democrats will oppose it. I don’t know that every Democrat will oppose it. There will be some things in there that they perhaps think are appropriate.”
But White House spokesman Jay Carney, speaking to reporters before the start of the meeting between Obama and congressional leaders, would not comment on the GOP’s short-term proposal to fund the government for another week. He would neither confirm nor deny reports that the White House had already shot down the deal, saying only that the administration believes a long-term agreement is “within reach.”
House GOP leaders said that if Obama rejected their one-week extension of government funding because of the heavy cuts in spending attached to it, he would bear the blame for heightening the chances of a federal worker shutdown.
“The White House has increased the likelihood of a shutdown,” Cantor told reporters after an hour-long huddle with the Republican Conference.
Hoyer argued that through the one-week stopgap, House Republicans are “trying to do indirectly” what they have not yet been able to do directly: enact $61 billion in cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year, a proposal to which Democrats remain opposed.
He also called the one-week stopgap “inconsistent” with Cantor’s previous statement that he would not support an additional short-term funding bill. Hoyer added that another short-term measure would be “an extraordinarily inefficient, ineffective and costly way of doing business, funding the largest enterprise in the world on a weekly basis.”
After weeks of negotiating over money, time is now also a major concern. There is general agreement that the two sides must cut a deal by Tuesday night if it is to work its way through both chambers and reach Obama’s desk before the government runs out of money Friday.
Late Monday, a senior White House aide told top agency officials to begin preparations for how to handle a shutdown, a move that was echoed in a statement by Boehner to House leaders.
But Boehner also announced his intention to offer Obama and Senate Democrats another stopgap funding measure that would keep federal funding flowing for an additional week. That offer would come with conditions, however: According to the House Appropriations Committee, Democrats would have to agree to $12 billion in further spending cuts and to fund the Defense Department for the remainder of the year — thus removing the Pentagon from the possible budget disruptions still faced by other federal agencies.
Short of a broad deal for the entire federal government, approving another short-term measure might be the only route to keep Washington open while the two sides work out their differences.
Many Democrats and Republicans have said they would not approve what would be the seventh stopgap funding bill since October, but some key conservative lawmakers said Monday that they would support one week’s funding if the bill included the Pentagon’s yearly spending. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been pleading with Congress to exempt his department from the piecemeal plans for funding the government a few weeks at a time.
If lawmakers cannot reach an agreement, the first federal government shutdown since the mid-1990s would start Saturday and the full impact would be felt on Monday, when millions of federal employees across the country would typically report for work.
As the deadline neared, Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) exchanged insults, each side blaming the other for the stalemate.
Boehner continued to deny that he had agreed to a widely reported compromise with Democrats of $33 billion in spending reductions — even as one of his GOP chairmen worked with Democrats to hit that mark.
“Despite attempts by Democrats to lock in a number among themselves, I’ve made clear that their $33 billion is not enough, and many of the cuts that the White House and Senate Democrats are talking about are full of smoke and mirrors. That’s unacceptable,” Boehner said in a statement.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Reid insisted that “we agreed upon a number.” He accused Boehner of backing away from the compromise because of pressure from tea party activists who provided much of the energy in the GOP’s massive victory in the 2010 elections.
Many conservative Republicans in the House have said they would not vote for any budget deal unless it contained the full $61 billion in cuts GOP members approved earlier this year in a party-line vote. That measure was later rejected by the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
“Republicans and the tea party continue to reject reality, and insist instead on ideology,” Reid said.
At issue, according to aides familiar with the talks, is the makeup of the spending cuts. Democrats want to reach the $33 billion through a combination of permanent cuts to a number of federal agencies and one-time reductions to other government programs, such as Pell grants and some agriculture subsidies.
Republicans are balking at many of the temporary cuts because they will not permanently reduce the size of government.
Even if the chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees can agree on a package of cuts, and conservative House members decide to go along with the plan, there might not be enough time to approve it before the deadline.
According to a House rule Boehner put in place this year, no bill can come to a vote until members have had three days to read it — leaving almost no time for the Senate to act if the House could not approve its version until late Friday or over the weekend.
House Republicans huddled late Monday and, according to a GOP aide, gave the speaker an ovation when he informed them that he was advising the House Administration Committee to begin preparing for a possible shutdown. That process includes alerting lawmakers and senior staff about which employees would not report to work if no agreement is reached.
Boehner’s offer of another stopgap bill comes at a significantly higher cost than the $2 billion in cuts per week that accompanied the two most recent short-term funding plans. Also, Republicans are attaching some policy prescriptions to the one-week measure, including one that would prohibit federal funds going toward any abortion services in the District.
The issue will come to a head Tuesday at a White House gathering of Obama, Boehner, Reid, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.).
“The president has made clear that we all understand the need to cut spending, and significant progress has been made in agreeing that we can all work off the same number,” Carney told reporters Monday.
Republicans and Democrats are eager to avoid a shutdown in part because neither side thinks it will be able to claim political advantage. In a new Washington Post poll, 37 percent say they would fault the Obama administration for a partial federal shutdown. The same number would blame the Republicans in Congress.
Those figures are nearly the same as in late February, despite five weeks of fierce negotiations and positioning on the issue.
This is a change from the government shutdowns in the mid-1990s. In late 1995, 46 percent of voters said they would blame then House speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), if the government shut down, and 27 percent would blame President Bill Clinton.
The new numbers also indicate growing disillusionment among Republicans. Although 81 percent of Republicans say they think Obama is “just playing politics” with the budget (up from 70 percent five weeks ago), 40 percent of all Republicans see the GOP in Congress as posturing on the budget — a 13-point increase.
Staff writers Jon Cohen, Felicia Sonmez and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.